Monday, April 12, 2010

The Principle Of Ordinary Perturbances

First: Went for a run today. The 9 k half-needle. I don't have a time for it, though, so you'll have to take my word for it that it was so speedy they had to come up with a new word for it: spdy. Too quick for vowels.

Second: Wanna do a review for the second episode of Dr Who. It answers some of the questions raised in the last discussion. But I want to read the Doctor Who essays in the anthology "Third Person" first (it's for my comp exam). But before that, I need to read the earlier anthology "First Person," because that's the one that someone's placed a recall notice on.

Third: Speaking of comp books, one of the best known books in design theory is on my reading list: Donald Norman's The Psychology Of Everyday Things (with the deliberate acronym of POET). Norman's principle is simple: in the modern world, people often have problems operating the simplest of objects, and the reason for that is that these objects are poorly designed. Rather than focus on the utility (or usability, as he puts it) of objects, designers focus on aesthetics, creating beautiful, frustrating objects. A properly designed object, he argues, should have an obvious affordance--that is, you should be able to tell how it's used by looking at it.And in addition to the notion of affordance, Norman lists the reasons he thinks people tend to make mistakes--we start out with one task in mind, but inadvertently turn our attention to another more common task. You reach for the plunger under the sink, but grab the toilet bowl cleaner. You go for a walk, and reach for the dog leash when the dog's staying overnight with the vet. You mean to drive to your children's gymnastic performance, but you drive to the bar instead. And so on.

Norman's message has a clear appeal: people like being told it's not their fault, it's someone else's. I know I do. Through out the course of my life, time and time again, certain people have accused me of lacking common sense (you know who you are). Just the hint that it might be because I'm weighed down by the detritus of other people's errors gives me the courage to face my lot with stoic resignation. On the other hand, I have to raise an objection to the opposition he's created, and state that, in some conditions, aesthetics IS the purpose of design, and the two can't be separated as easily as he does. (I have to define aesthetics. As an English major, it's written in my contract in very fine and very graceful ink.)

Finally, Norman also goes through many examples of poor everyday designs, and how they could be possibly improved. The computer gets a fair bit of his attention--the effect of a button in a program should be clear, and its effect after clicking should be just as clear--and, depending on the consequence of the button, easily reversible. The text was written in the 90s, so the computer examples are a little out of date; the next example, light switches, still holds strong. A row of light switches is very nice to look at, but there's no easy way to determine which switch goes with which light. Norman suggests that we redesign switches so that they are spatially overlaid on a miniature map of the room, thus eliminating the confusion.

And then there's doors. Doors need to indicate whether they should be pushed or pulled. Many fail to do so. On something as simple as a door, Norman feels that if it requires any instruction, even the word "PULL," it is poorly designed. Instead, a door that needs to be pushed should have an horizontal crossbar, whereas a door that needs to be opened should have a vertical handle. I mention doors because I've been having door-related problems recently. Thanks to some lovely allocation policies, the English PhD students in my department have their offices in a separate building than the rest of the English department. Sometimes, this means a lot of back and forth. The buildings are beside each other, but designed in strange half-oval shapes that open in opposite directions (The only logical, yet admittedly apocryphal, explanation I've heard for this is that it's to prevent massing for student protests). Thus, there is one and only one set of doors that allows for easy passage from one to the other. Fine enough. You get used to the pattern, and move on with your life.

Recently, though, the door to the English Department has been replaced. The replacement is a very pretty door. It has a crossbar on the inside, and a handle on the outside. Sadly, the outside handle is ornamental--the door is designed to open from the inside only. What this means is that I can still take the same route from the department to my office, but I have to take the long way around to get from my office to the department. And, because the old route is still in my head, I still walk all the way to the old door before I realize my error and start moving in the correct direction.

Recently, though, I've noticed that some industrious soul has found a way to circumvent the forced circumference circling--every day, someone puts a bucket in the door to prop it open. Every day, someone removes it at the end of the day. This means that the entrance way is subject to the elements and the outdoors far more than usual--so whichever person decided that the campus would be better served with that door closed has created a situation where the door is now open far more often than ever.

This isn't a principle that Norman mentions, but maybe it should be: People adjust to bad design decisions. One way or the other.

Later Days.

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